MOSCOW -- Trying to shed charges that he has abandoned reform for reaction, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has called for creating a "centrist coalition" to pursue progressive change while averting chaos and preserving the Soviet Union.
But his speech was unlikely to be seen as a serious peacemaking gesture toward his radical critics because he said the coalition should be organized by the Communist Party, widely considered a fortress of reactionaries.
Moreover, on the most critical question facing the Soviet leadership, the fate of republican independence movements, Mr. Gorbachev gave no ground, attacking their leaders as "loudmouths of the separatist persuasion."
Nonetheless, in contrast with many of his recent speeches, Mr. Gorbachev aimed some of his most emotional barbs at conservatives nostalgic for earlier times and at hard-line critics of his foreign policy.
Increasingly portrayed as the leader of conservative forces posed against reformers headed by his archrival, Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin, Mr. Gorbachev is attempting to reassert his old image: that of a moderate mediating between extremes of left and right.
"We can't live the way we lived before. We have to live like human beings," Mr. Gorbachev said in the speech, delivered Thursday in Byelorussia and televised last night.
The Soviet president, who turns 60 today, lashed out at those he said exploit current troubles to make a call for a return to past methods.
"That's a delusion. That's a dangerous proposal, and I think we hear that mostly from those who are nostalgic for old times. We know that the answers are not to be found there," he said.
"The current crisis is not in itself a catastrophe, but a stage on the path to renewal of our society."
As his remarks were broadcast, thousands of coal miners were completing a one-day strike to press for higher wages and a mixed bag of political demands. Union leaders in the critical Kuzbass mining region of Siberia said their men would walk out Monday to demand not only economic concessions but the resignation of Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet government as well.
Latvia and Estonia plan to defy Mr. Gorbachev tomorrow by holding referendums on independence. Both republics, like their Baltic neighbor, Lithuania, and Armenia, Moldova and Georgia, have rejected Mr. Gorbachev's referendum set for March 17 on whether the Soviet Union should be preserved.
Meanwhile, the country's economic slide still shows no sign of hitting bottom. Moscow officials imposed yesterday pint-per-month rationing on vodka and warned that the capital's meat supply had been cut off almost completely.
Mr. Gorbachev denied that reforms were to blame for the collapse. Rather, he said, the troubles were a natural consequence of trying to leave behind a "total command system, where everything was dictated -- what kind of nail to use, with head or headless, and how many centimeters it should be nailed in.
"What's that -- leadership? Can you really run in that way a country in which dozens of peoples live, where there are 15 sovereign republics and 300 million people? No, you can't live that way."
He rejected charges that he was leading the country into dictatorship. On the contrary, only firm leadership can prevent an eventual reversion to dictatorial rule, he argued.
"If things reach the point of chaos, then out of chaos grows dictatorship -- that's for certain. It's been that way everywhere," he said.
He warned against the growing polarization of political forces, criticizing not only radical "adventurists" but also those who seek a return to "Stalinism and stagnation." Only a coalition of "patriotic" and "democratic" political parties and movements can lead the country out of crisis, he said.
"Precisely the Communist Party should become the integrating factor of all centrist forces," said Mr. Gorbachev.
He said the party should become more "dynamic and open" and speak out against "dogmatic conservative forces speaking for socialism without democracy as well as to liberal-bourgeois forces speaking for democracy without socialism."
Although his notion of socialism remained vague, as usual, he said it should be not be "ideologized" but understood as a general commitment to social justice.